An Israeli-Egyptian Utopia
I had already heard a great deal about the Israeli film "The Band's Visit" before I had the chance to see it. The film wasn't shown in Cairo, where I live, despite an Egyptian police orchestra being cast in the leading role. The word last fall was that the Israeli filmmakers were going to promote it at the Cairo International Film Festival and that "The Band's Visit" could expect a huge launch at the Middle Eastern International Film Festival (MEIFF) in Abu Dhabi.
Then the MEIFF withdrew its announcement. The spokesman of the Egyptian Actors' Union simultaneously declared that "The Band's Visit" would not be shown in Cairo. The artists on the Nile were expressly opposed to any cultural exchange with the "Zionist state."
In addition, the Egyptian actors threatened to boycott the MEIFF should "The Band's Visit" be shown at the festival. I could feel a helpless rage boiling up inside of me. I recalled how the excellent Tunisian film "L'Homme De Cendres" was similarly banned by the Egyptian Actors' Union some twenty years ago. The union had slammed the film as Zionist propaganda just because it featured a Tunisian Jew.
The seductive power of an Israeli woman
I finally managed to see "The Band's Visit" this past December in freezing Zurich. The film poster near the fountain at Stadelhofen was adorned with sparkling icicles. Once inside the cinema, I soon felt a little too warm.
This wasn't only because the film takes place in some desolate Israeli town, but also because the audience can almost feel the sexual attraction between the local café owner Dina and the Egyptian musicians, who have mistakenly found themselves stranded in this isolated desert location. Covered in sweat, I begin to ask myself if THIS was the real reason the Arabs turned down the film.
Hot flushes aside, I really liked the film. I laughed at the stilted manners of the elderly Egyptian conductor Tawfik, who strives to maintain proper decorum even in the most nerve-wracking situations. Dina manages to find the musicians, who were, in fact, invited to Israel, but landed in the wrong place, accommodations for the night with various Israeli families. Tawfik and the young violinist Khaled are to sleep at her home.
Dina and Tawfik fall in love at first glance, yet the Egyptian resists the Israeli woman's power of seduction. He is woken up in the middle of the night by strange noises, which turn out to be the sound of Dina and Khaled kissing! Khaled likes women and doesn't hesitate to seize the opportunity.
An Israeli-Egyptian love affair
This plot development can also be understood symbolically – the old Egypt rejects Israel, whereas the new Egypt is thoroughly able to love it. However, back to the film. The next morning, the orchestra moves on and finally performs its planned concert. Tawfik fervently sings an Egyptian love song. For Dina? In any case, he looks towards Khaled triumphantly as if to say, "THIS and not sex is true love."
When I came out of the cinema, it had become colder and the icicles around the fountain were clinking. I thought of the yellow-gold Sinai desert and its green, undulating strip of coastline. They would seamlessly meld into the sands and beaches of Israel were it not for the walls, fences, and border posts.
Eran Kolirin, the film's director, probably has the same regret. Responding to criticism that only broken English is spoken throughout practically the whole film, he says that this shows the absurdity of the enmity between Israel and Egypt, where similar Semitic languages are spoken. In fact, almost no one in Egypt learns Hebrew, and Jews in Israel rarely speak Arabic.
Pure fantasy or a utopia?
Swaying back and forth on the number 13 tram back to my temporary home, I brooded over another criticism of "The Band's Visit". The film's author criticizes that, in reality, an Egyptian police orchestra would never receive an invitation to Israel! I shake my head involuntarily – as if Kolirin wasn't aware of this! At the Toronto Film Festival, he said that "The Band's Visit" wouldn't have a chance if it were to be judged on the basis of reality.
I get out of the tram at Waffenplatz. The frost crunches under my feet and my breath is a white mist. I like the cold and walk the rest of the way home. Kolirin's film is pure fantasy, I think.
Yet, because the film takes place in Israel and deals with the chance encounter of PEOPLE from Egypt and Israel, it is more than simply a story, it portrays a utopia. And although "The Band's Visit" was banned in Cairo and Abu Dhabi, its producers remain optimistic and say that somehow the Arabs will manage to copy the film and view it.
Climbing up the creaking stairs to my friend's apartment, I mutter to myself, "And someday the Arabs and the Israelis will meet – in reality."
© Neue Zürcher Zeitung / Qantara.de 2008
Translated from the German by John Bergeron